In a country with over twenty-five million visitors per year, can you have a unique experience? In a country you can barely count your own passport stamps from, can you still be taken by surprise? In a country beloved by bloggers, can you share something original with the internet?
This was my year of attempting to prove yes to all of those questions, when it comes to me and Thailand. Sure, I spent the majority of my time in my familiar old favorite Koh Tao. And yes, I returned to destinations I’ve been to over and over again. But I also made a concerted effort to craft trips that were logistically challenging, personally inspiring and at least one giant step off the banana pancake trail.
My three day trip to Khao Yai National Park was one of them.
When college bestie Zoe and two of her friends started planning a trip to Thailand, a two-wheel motorbike adventure was high on the agenda. My first thought was to send them up to the famous Chiang Mai motorbike loop, but limited time would make it a tight journey. And then I remembered: Khao Yai National Park, a Thailand gem I’d long been itching to visit. And so after a few sunny days on Koh Phangan followed by a few rainy days on Koh Tao, we all set off together on the long journey to Thailand’s first National Park. But first — well, after a ferry, a bus shuttle, two trains and a motorbike ride — we stopped for a night in the park’s gateway city of Pak Chong.
It wasn’t to rest up. We paused here for the evening to see bats; specifically, the two million of them that erupt from Khao Lak Chang Cave each evening at sunset. While our main objective for the trip was to camp out in the park itself, logistically, seeing the bats meant spending a night outside of it — the bat cave is located a few kilometers outside the border of the park and rudely they do not time their nightly show to coincide with the park’s opening hours. So to see the bats, you must spend a night in Pak Chong.
The vast majority of Western visitors to Khao Yai National Park visit on an organized tour and sleep outside the park, anyway. The two standard tours on offer in the area are a half day tour that stays on the outskirts of the park, and a full day tour that enters the park.[Note: I’m putting together an extensive, detailed guide on how to tackle visiting the National Park independently, so stay tuned for that! But I wanted to dedicate a post to reviewing the half day tour we took with Greenleaf, since information on even the organized excursions to and around Khao Yai are fairly limited.]
Because we were exploring the park itself independently, we had no need for the full day tour, but happily signed on for the half day afternoon tour at . For budget travelers, it’s one of just two choices alongside — higher end hotels and guesthouses in the area also offer the same two standard offerings, albeit at much higher prices. I had my hesitations about booking with Greenleaf due to reports on Tripadvisor of whomever answers their emails mocking customers with questions and concerns, but with limited options we forged ahead. After an overnight journey we couldn’t quite stomach the cold showers in the onsite 300 baht rooms, so we upgraded to the 800 baht room per night, shown above, at the resort right next to Greenleaf.
Anxious as I was to get inside the park, I absolutely loved the distinct quirkiness of the area around it. Khao Yai the region (of which Pak Chong is the largest city) and Khao Yai the national park are two very different things. Khao Yai region is hysterical, the absolute antithesis of the raw, natural beauty that the national park is known for. , , and line the road. This is where Thais come to pretend they are anywhere but Thailand.
The tour got off to a slow start. We had arrived at Greenleaf around midday and hadn’t noticed many other people kicking about, and so when our 3pm tour start rolled around we were shocked to find two truckfulls of travelers heading out with us!
Our first stop was along the side of the road, where our guide spotted a creepy looking spider and a harmless snake. The guide was friendly but the stop dragged on and it was hard to hear what was going on with such a large group. When we got to our first scheduled destination, a local natural spring, we were told we didn’t actually have enough time to go swimming after looking at the spider and snake for too long — ha!
However, at this stop I did make a startling discovery. Since we’d first loaded up in the vans, there was one guy who I could not stop creepy staring at — I just could not shake the feeling I’d met him somewhere. Finally it hit me — it was my friend Travis from Greece! I ran over and we laughed at what an insanely small world it was. I could smack myself for not taking a picture of us together.
Next up, Buddha Cave. Our guide pointed out several creepie crawlies — several of which were really impressive, and the five of us marveled at the group members willing to pose with them on their hands and bodies. No thanks!
I have to admit that at this point we were pretty unimpressed with the tour. With a huge group size, there is inevitably a lot of standing and waiting around and while the bugs had been cool we just weren’t wowed yet, and I’d started to wish we had just headed straight into the park instead.
That was all about to change.
We pulled down a dirt road and parked in a field with a few other trucks containing tourists from higher end guesthouses and travel agencies. We cooled our heels for a bit, listening to our guide talk about the history of the cave and the lives of the bats that call it home while we waited for them to make their big appearance.
And then we saw them. First, they trickled out a few at a time, but quickly they formed into a thick ribbon swirling and snaking around the sky above us. It was hypnotizing; two million bats moving as one pulsing force.
And we had the best seat in the house. I thought back to my trip to Lopburi, years ago, when I watched another set of bats go out for their nightly hunt. Maybe it was the company, but this was even better.
The bats take off just before sunset and take about two hours to fully release from the cave, though there’s really only about half an hour of prime viewing time before it gets too dark to take photos or see what’s going on.
As we gathered to leave, our guide showed us the cave through a telescope, so we could see the bars that concerned locals added to the front so curious tourists wouldn’t disrupt the bats by trying to go inside.
It was a magical night and as we set off back towards the guesthouse, we concurred that it was time well spent and we were grateful for the opportunity to have had seen the bats, even if it meant we had to sacrifice a night spent within the actual park.
That said, while the staff was incredibly friendly and we adored the magical moments of watching the bats, it wasn’t my favorite tour ever. (However, I should add that I later checked in with my friend Travis who had continued on to the full day tour the following day, which he reported was a vast improvement over the half day version.)
In retrospect, I’d save the hours spent knocking around and the 500 baht I spent on the tour and attempt to find the bat cave myself! While I couldn’t track down exact directions, I did find and , and you can always ask for help.
One issue you may have if you try to find the cave yourself is that both Greenleaf and Bobby’s give preference to guests who sign up for their tours, so they likely won’t accept your reservation if you’re not taking one. But they aren’t the only choices in town (just the only two with both budget prices and an English website), so if they both happen to be full you won’t be stuck on the streets. Regardless of if you go independently or by tour, this amazing free show of nature is an absolute highlight.
Have you ever seen bats like this before? Have you been to Khao Yai?